Roman ‘Holy day’: Our Lady of Lake’s six missionaries
Six members of Our Lady of the Lake’s Catholic Youth Organization in Mandeville spent Easter break in Rome, helping Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity care for elderly men who are sick and dying.
Austin Ashcraft, director of youth ministry and confirmation coordinator at Our Lady of the Lake (OLL) Parish in Mandeville, planned the trip. He had had mission experiences at St. Paul’s School, where he is a teacher. When he took the helm of the OLL CYO, he wanted a similar experience for his 90-plus youth members.
“I had always wanted to take the youth on an abroad trip,” he said. “Once I got to OLL, Father Mark (Lomax) was all about abroad trips.”
He first considered missions to third-world countries. But after researching the Missionaries of Charity and discovering they were worldwide, the idea of traveling to Rome surfaced.
The six students who committed made and sold 200 Easter baskets – raising $5,100 – and wrote fund-raising letters asking for support.
The March 26-April 4 trip was half-mission and half-pilgrimage, Ashcraft said. Students stayed at the monastery most nights and worked with the sisters each day beginning at 7:30 a.m., went on pilgrimages and then returned to help the sisters again in the evening.
“It definitely wasn’t your usual mission trip,” Ashcraft said. “This was the full reality of Christian life – sometimes it’s hard; sometimes it’s great. Sometimes you are serving the poor; other times you are enjoying dinner together.”
Humble duties, big joy
The six performed duties they probably don’t do at home – cleaning bathrooms, sinks, toilets and showers, hand-washing laundry for 70 disabled men, changing sheets and bedding, peeling potatoes and serving breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Pilgrimages included visiting St. Paul’s (Outside the Walls) Basilica, with the tomb of St. Paul, which was “a wonderful time of prayer for all of the guys individually and then for us as a group to pray and ask for St. Paul’s intercession in our lives and for our school,” Ashcraft said.
They visited St. John Lateran Basilica (the pope’s official home church), had front-row seats at an Easter Mass celebrated by Pope Francis and attended a general audience with the pope,
They also visited the Scala Sancta near St. John Lateran, scaling the 28 marble steps which, according to Catholic tradition, Jesus climbed when condemned by Pontius Pilate.
“This was a powerful moment for me,” Ashcraft said. “I told them that on each of the 28 steps to offer it up for someone and pray for them. I think it made prayer real for them. I walked up behind them and watched how slowly and reverently they were walking up. Some were crying their way up. It was definitely one of the highlights. It is one thing to talk about your faith. But it’s something to be on your knees climbing the same steps (Jesus) climbed. It just brings faith home. I don’t think you can climb these steps and not experience Christ.”
The young men and Ashcraft also went on a pilgrimage to Assisi to visit St. Francis’ tomb at the Basilica of Santa Clara, and did a 2 1/2-mile, barefoot pilgrimage up the mountains where Francis prayed. And, they prayed the Divine Mercy chaplet daily.
“It was wonderful to see the effects of prayer by others for us – family friends, nuns – and the graces of all that prayer being poured out of these guys as they experienced their faith,” Ashcraft said.
Nuns exuded love
The element of the trip that most impacted the young men and Ashcraft was seeing the joy of the Missionaries of Charity as they served others.
“It was amazing realizing how the nuns do what they do every day and are still joyful. Just to put (the boys) in the presence of the sisters was so powerful. Their whole life is a gift of self, and their joy is so full. This was a big source of conversion for these guys.”
It was St. Paul senior Logan Haydel’s first time in Rome. He described the monastery as “the sweetest bed-and-breakfast you can imagine,” and the experience of serving the poor had a profound impact on him. Serving others on this large scale made him realize how self-centered Americans can be.
“It was all centered on loving the men ... and helping out in any way we could,” Haydel said. “They don’t have anybody in their lives. Their families abandoned them, so we were there to be friends and talk with them.”
He said he especially enjoyed helping the sisters serve the men in the dining room.
“The sisters devote their entire lives to do this and serve others every day,” Haydel said. “It gave me a new outlook on service and what God wants from us when he asks us to serve others. It’s not just opening a door for someone. He really wants us to put others before ourselves.”
Haydel said he would now strive for more than just a good job, marrying a nice woman, sending his future children to a nice school or having a nice car. “It opened my eyes that God has a bigger plan for me than I realized.”
Ashcraft hoped the CYO members would encounter Christ in the poor, learn not to judge, put up walls or be afraid of those who needed help, and learn about their gifts from God so they would realize they have something to offer the church.
“By the end of the week, we made some serious friendships with the guys,” Ashcraft said. “OK, so I keep thinking at the end of every day that this trip couldn’t get any better, and then the next day happens. ... I am truly at a loss for words right now, because he truly is the God of surprises.”